At sunset on Friday 9 October 2015, I stood on the summit of Mont Blanc (4810m), thereby completing Challenge 12 and marking the end of the Antrobus12in12 Challenges against Cancer.
This is the story of that final day.
Rob Jarvis (www.highmountainguides.com) and I were scheduled to start the climb the previous Tuesday, with an incremental 2 or 3 day approach to the summit, sleeping in the winter rooms of the huts, as we acclimatised with a gradual ascent of Western Europe’s highest mountain.
It soon became clear we were going nowhere that Tuesday, as a storm descended on the Chamonix valley, and continued into Wednesday. Reports of up to a metre of new snow in the high mountains made gloomy reading. The avalanche risk now looked pretty serious, and a succesful ascent was looking less and less likely.
The weather had cleared by Thursday, but we needed the new snow pack to settle and ‘stick’ to the mountainside, before considering a Mont Blanc summit attempt. We also wanted to get a feeling for how hard the trail-breaking would be, so made a small reconnaissance trip onto the Italian side of the Mont Blanc range. Rob suggested a traverse of the airy summit ridge of the Aiguille Marbrees (3535m), which is quickly reached from the Hellbronner lift.We were pleased to discover a bit less new snow than reported, and the ridge was in good condition, with interesting wind-blown snow formations.
Encouraged, we made our plans for an early departure the next morning.
After a 5.30am breakfast, I left the hotel and met up with Rob in the ski resort of St Gervais. All the lifts that climbers normally use to start the ascent of Mont Blanc were closed weeks ago, so we took a car to the highest point we could reach by forest road (1800m) and at 7.30am we started the ascent through the alpine meadows. Cloud shrouded the Chamonix valley floor beneath us.
We made fast progress through the woods, along the summer train track, and reached the snow line at around 2900m. The notorious Grand Couloir – where rock fall has claimed the lives of many climbers, including this summer – was passed safely and we made our way up the first serious climbing on the mountain, the fine 500m ascent of thr Gouter spur.
It was clear by then that we were not alone on the mountain. Footprints in the new snow suggested we might not have to break-trail after all on the high mountain. The odds of a successful attempt just went up!
We reached the old Gouter hut at 3800m just before 2pm, and reviewed our options. We had originally planned to overnight in the small winter room, before making a summit attempt early the following morning. But the weather was good, there appeared to be a track on the high mountain, and we were feeling (relatively) fresh. So we decided to make a summit attempt that afternoon!
We set off again before 3pm, and quickly discovered the reason for the tracks. A group of Polish climbers were making for the small emergency Vallot hut at 4300m, and were not planning to summit that day. We carried on past the Poles…
The snow was getting deeper, my legs were feeling extraordinarily heavy, and it was slow going. But there was a single set of small footprints still leading up the mountain (albeit in a slightly unusual route)… Clouds were now beginning to obscure the view, but we emerged on the summit ridge to glorious late afternoon sunshine.
With a last burst of energy, I clambered up the final metres to the summit, and as the sun set, we celebrated an epic adventure!
I do not remember much about the starlit descent to the Gouter hut…I was just glad I had my headtorch with me……We struggled back to the unheated winter room at 9.30pm, after nearly fourteen hours of climbing, 3100m of ascent and 1100m of descent, tired but elated.
The night in the hut was COLD…even fully clothed beneath five blankets, but the warm chicken curry that Rob rustled up, rehydrated with melted snow, helped somewhat. I did not sleep much that night, but the knowledge that the 12th challenge had been completed successfully gave me wings, as we virtually flew down the 2400m descent to the waiting car, early the next morning.
And so the journey ends. Twelve months of running, climbing, walking and skiing in some of Europe’s most spectacular places. It has been a true adventure and an experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life. It would not have been possible without the support of so many people. In a couple of weeks’ time I will write one final blog to reflect on all 12 challenges, but for now will thank just Rob Jarvis for his immense skill, enduring patience, good humour and most of all his extraordinary passion for the high mountains.
PS If you were wondering who it was that made the single set of footprints we followed high on the slopes of Mont Blanc, well, that may remain forever a mystery. We did meet a solitary French climber earlier in the day running down the hill dressed in lycra and wearing trail running shoes with plastic crampons. But it couldn’t have been him….could it..? After all, Mont Blanc is a seriously big mountain 🙂